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Sergeant Alice Arigo responds to abuse every day. As the lead of the Family and Sexual Violence Unit (FSVU) of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary in Tari, Hela Province, Sergeant Alice is the police officer to whom many women, men, and children report experiences of violence from those closest to them. 

Not all of these individuals are looking for a police response. Though the official mandate of her office is limited to criminal offenses pertaining to the Family Protection Act, with so few avenues for support, people turn to the FSVU for counselling support when dealing with violence. 

“My office enforces the Family Protection Act,” shared Sergeant Arigo. “A lot of survivors come here because they have nowhere to go. They think “Oh, that’s a woman’s office” and they think I can do everything for them.”

“We need to give some support to survivors - domestic violence survivors, victims of tribal fights, and people who are displaced, especially women and children. When people are displaced, they go to stay in another village and are revictimised; being raped, robbed, all these things.”

After years of hearing stories of trauma on a daily basis, Sergeant Arigo is welcoming a new training package that will upskill service providers in providing basic counselling for survivors of violence. 


Five Different, Terrible and Unbelievable Stories, Every Day

In Papua New Guinea, there are limited professional mental health services available to provide the services that Sergeant Arigo recognises is needed in Hela. When professional mental health services are not available, the need does not go away. It simply gets passed to frontline service providers who are eager to help, but who lack the necessary training. 

“I listen to five different stories, terrible and unbelievable stories, every day,” said Sergeant Arigo. “The next day is the same, and the next day is the same. I sit down with them in my office. It’s not something my office is supposed to do, but there’s no options for these survivors.”

“There’s no counselling office. If they need to go to the hospital, I send them to the FSC. They provide medical treatment and they do a little bit of counselling over there, but there’s really no place for this. We need to establish a place where we can refer mothers and children to get help.”

It is not only FSVU officers who find themselves serving as ad-hoc counsellors. Health care providers, safe house staff, and church leaders are also people who, by virtue of being the face of a safe space for survivors, hear stories of abuse, see the physical toll of violence, and receive requests for intervention or mediation. 

It can be difficult for those who, like Sergeant Alice, are driven by a desire to help protect survivors, to turn away those sat before them looking for a caring ear to hear their story. But while providing a space to speak is valuable, providing advice and guidance without professional training in psychosocial support can be detrimental to the survivor. 

“These people are so traumatised and if they’re coming in, and you’re not trained, and you don’t know how to handle yourself, it’s chaos,” said Sergeant Arigo. “So we need support for the people who are dealing with these survivors. They need the right skills. They need to know what to say and do. They need to be equipped with knowledge and skills on how to deal with people affected by trauma.”


Impact of Stories of Trauma on Responders

Professional mental health and psychosocial support not only gives survivors the best quality care, but relieves the burden that repeated exposure to these stories has on those without the required training. 

Stella Dermosoniadi is a specialist in mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). She has joined UNFPA in strengthening the MHPSS services available for survivors of violence in Hela Province. She shared how repeated exposure to stories of violence can affect responders. 

“Professionals and others who become helpers of those experiencing trauma are exposed to several conditions due to the extra burden of hearing traumatizing stories and trying to provide support,” said Stella. “Furthermore, they often work in contexts with limited services and no adequate supervision and deal with several requests that exceed their capacity and expertise.”  

“Individuals who are directly or indirectly exposed to violence and trauma might experience different types of symptoms,” said Stella. “This includes emotional symptoms such as anxiety, anger, fear, grief, and mood swings. It can also include physical responses such as migraines, stomach aches, and skin conditions, and they can experience a reduced ability to concentrate and make decisions.”

For responders who experience this secondary trauma, such reduced capacity can affect their regular work. It can also affect their day-to-day life and cause burn-out. 

“Their quality of life can be affected in multiple ways, like experiencing changes in eating and sleeping patterns and feeling helpless and hopeless,” said Stella. 

Sergeant Arifo is familiar with these impacts and has adopted methods to manage with the stresses of her role supporting survivors. 

“I am also traumatised hearing these stories,” shared Sergeant Arigo. “I would take it home and take it out on my children. After I had some training, I recognised how it affected me. Now, if I say I have had enough, I close my office door. I need to set boundaries because otherwise I am not helping. I am exhausted when I go home. I do my gardening. I go to Church. That’s what I do to seperate myself from it. When I can take control, I can do my best.”

What differentiates this professional support from that provided by those without training is the use of structured techniques to manage conversations and ensure they are not contributing further harm to the survivor. 

“Qualified MHPSS professionals use evidence-based methods and follow international guidelines and recommendations, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee MHPSS guidelines,” said Stella. “Regardless of the level of support they provide, for example, from community support services to psychiatric care, they respect the “do no harm” principle and ensure a proper assessment for each case. Therefore, MHPSS professionals offer tailor-made interventions and prioritize the best interest of the service users in an ethical way. In addition, they are aware of their capacity limitations and refer to other qualified service providers for further needs.”   


Strengthening Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Hela Province

UNFPA is working alongside UN Women to deliver a pilot mental health and psychosocial support program in the Highlands Region. This can include any professional services to promote mental health psychosocial wellbeing and includes treatment of psychological disorders in addition to post-traumatic stress. 

“Given the shortage of human resources for mental health support within the country and the severity of the situation, this project aims to train health providers and other community persons on different MHPSS evidence-based tools and different layers of support,” said Stella. “Capacity building will help them gain skills in the identification of MHPSS needs and the provision of basic or advanced counseling.” 

“In addition, the project aims to build a stronger network of MHPSS-trained people to relieve the existing burden of service providers and ensure the quality of services that will promote the overall mental well-being of the communities.” 

Importantly, this project is about strengthening the skills of those already working in the province so that those who are in need of assistance can benefit from evidence-based mental health support from the service providers they are familiar with, at the facilities they know.

“I know this project is a pilot project. We are starting small but I want to see that there are some people who are trying to do counselling, even basic counselling,” said Sergeant Arigo. “I know we need to have some people who are trained in this.”

From modest steps forward through this current project, the realisation of effective mental health services in Hela Province is coming closer. 

If you or someone you know is struggling and in need of support, the 1-tok helpim lain is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call for free from Digicel on 7150 8000. 


UNFPA and Peacebuilding

UNFPA is working with UN Women to complete the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) project in Hela Province as part of the Gender and Youth Promotion Initiative (GYPI), with support from the UN Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). 

The project complements UN peacebuilding activities being implemented through the UN Joint Programme in the Highlands which brings together over five UN agencies in various development initiatives ranging from GBV prevention and response, agriculture, protection, education and capacities for inclusive planning.